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Digital Libraries Will Make Information More Accessible

May 1997

Imagine walking into a library with all the books, journals, reports, photos, maps, videos and reference information you could possibly want. Now imagine doing that from the convenience of your home or office.

Researchers working on the Digital Libraries Initiative projects expect that their research advances will radically change the way individuals and organizations gather and use information.

The initiative is a joint venture between NSF, the Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Aeronautics and Space Admini-stration. It's a major project involving the combined efforts of research teams from six universities and more than 75 partner organizations.

It's also timely. "There is explosive growth in the quantity and means of access to digital information and this promises to be of great value to many diverse communities," says NSF's Digital Libraries Program Director Stephen Griffin. Right now, however, this digital information is not a library. It's more like an office with too many files. Some files are useful, others aren't, and sorting through them is often time-consuming and frustrating.

In addition, access to the information is often limited by the computer's ability to search. Computerized search mechanisms are literalists; they answer what they are asked. For example, a query about scientific papers on the northern lights may come up empty because the scientific name for the lights is aurora borealis. A human librarian, however, would immediately know to check both.

The human librarian conducts a semantic search, checking for what the patron means as well as what was said. Researchers at the digital libraries projects are working on technology to do just that, says Bruce Schatz, Director of the Digital Library Project at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. "The information retrieval of the next century will be far more semantic than syntactic, searching concepts instead of words."

Digital libraries research teams are also working on systems not readily available at a university campus.

At Carnegie Mellon University, researchers are creating a 1,000-hour video library aimed, in part, at K-12 schools. A keyword, such as "rhinoceros," will trigger a search and selection of all the related clips.

At the University of California at Santa Barbara, investigators on Project Alexandria work with geo-spacial information, or maps. Project Director Terry Smith's team addresses such issues as the downloading time of each map and scale compatibility between maps.

Researchers are also working at the University of California at Berkeley, University of Michigan and Stanford University. All of the universities will complete their four-year cooperative agreements in 1998, says NSF's Griffin. Several of the projects are expected to have widely used test systems by then.

To learn more about this initiative, visit NSF's Exhibit Center in Arlington, Va. Or check out the project's Web site at http://dli.grainger.uiuc.edu/national.htm


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